Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Past & present meet at River Bend Nature Center February 2, 2022

This sign stands near River Bend Nature Center’s interpretative center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

MONTHS AGO, BEFORE SNOW FELL and the season officially transitioned to winter, I followed a paved trail into the woods at River Bend Nature Center and then a grassy path to a wetlands overlook.

River Bend, on Faribault’s east side, rates as a favorite outdoor destination. That November day I embraced the lingering remnants of autumn, now overtaken by the cold and snow of winter.

Rugged bark draws my eye as I hike. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Even in the muted hues of autumn’s end, beauty exists.

But, for me, taking in the evolving landscape stretches beyond simply seeing that which unfolds before me. It’s also about looking back. To my childhood on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

One of many wooded trails in River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

When I hike the wooded trails of River Bend, I see my younger self riding my bike through the grove back on the farm. Except the bike was a horse, not a bike. I grew up in the era of TV Westerns—of “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”

The kids’ play area at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Fallen branches at River Bend angled into a shelter resemble those built by me and my siblings. We also constructed buildings by looping baler twine around tree trunks. And we crafted a house, too, from discarded wire fencing. Oh, the imaginations of farm kids let loose in the grove.

Dried oak leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Dried leaves scattered in the woods bring more memories. Each autumn, I gathered fallen leaves into piles, then dropped the leaves into lines. Walls. Constructing leaf houses filled many a recess at Vesta Elementary School. And many an autumn day for my siblings and me.

A single dried grass stem holds simple beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

I recall, too, hiding in tall grass between the granary and the south grove. When I scan the prairie expanse of River Bend, I imagine myself vanishing. Hiding from brothers with cap guns holstered at their sides. Yes, I owned a cap gun, too, and wore a straw cowgirl hat, although we called them cowboy hats back then.

The wetlands on prairie’s edge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

My father owned a gun, which he used once a year to hunt for pheasants in the slough hole (as we redundantly termed the slough on our farm). When I look across the wetlands at River Bend, I think of the one time my oldest brother and I accompanied Dad to the low lying pothole to hunt for pheasants. I don’t recall whether that hunt was successful. Eventually, Dad drained the slough to add more tillable acreage. I often wonder about the sensibilities of draining prairie potholes and how that affected the land. The undrained wetlands of River Bend are mostly dry in this drought year.

Dried coneflower seedheads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

While walking the prairie, I spotted dried seedheads. Coneflower seeds lying atop the grass, where they will eventually reseed. Nature recycling.

Milkweed pods, too, flourish in River Bend’s prairieland. Back on the farm, I pulled milkweeds from soybean fields. “Walking beans” is the correct term. Walking between soybean rows pulling unwanted weeds—especially cockleburs and thistles. Only detasseling corn ranks as worse. I’ll walk beans or shovel manure any day (and I did plenty of that) over corn detasseling on a hot and humid July day.

A dried milkweed pod burst open on the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Those dried milkweeds at River Bend bring one final memory. And it is a Christmas memory. One year I crafted a Christmas ornament for my Aunt Rachel from a milkweed pod and a discarded holiday card. (My mom saved everything.) I cut out an elfin girl dressed in a glittery red suit, her face framed by a pointy hood. Then I taped the cut-out to a toothpick and stuck the impish child into the downy snow of an open milkweed pod. Beautiful.

These are the childhood memories sparked by my November walk through River Bend Nature Center. I feel grateful for this sprawling natural space, for the peace it brings me as I follow trails into the present. And into the past.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


14 Responses to “Past & present meet at River Bend Nature Center”

  1. What great memories you described——I could just imagine the pretend gunfight with you and your siblings during simpler days. Amazing pictures as always.

  2. Eugene Says:

    Yes, when we were pulling all of the milkweeds out of the bean field we didn’t know we were killing all the monarch butterflies

  3. What beautiful memories that circle back to your connections to the land.

  4. Bernadette Arlene Thomasy Says:

    Lovely post, Audrey. It got me thinking about how childhood is such a short period in our lives, but the experiences then play such an important role in our whole lives. Your leaf houses made me smile!

  5. Sandra Says:

    That place is such a jewel. 46 this year. Nice to see someone enjoy it as intended. The Westerns era didn’t have our adult males packin’ assault rifles either. Hasn’t been decent script development or parade of quality talent playing filled out characters since. I do wish the ASPCA had a bit more influence though. I pollenated tomatoes for Farmer Seed with kids that bailed from detasseling at Castle Rock. Aunt Rachel’s ornament sounds incredible. You were super creative even then!

  6. Beautiful memories! Every child should have some time on a farm for making memories.

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